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China’s village basketball league a slam dunk

FILE PHOTO: This photo taken on July 30, 2023 shows posters promoting the grassroots basketball competition CunBA along a street in Taipan village, Taijiang county, in southwestern China's Guizhou province. (Photo by Jade GAO / AFP)

Thousands of raucous Chinese basketball fans pack tightly into a floodlit stadium filled with swirling fog, eager to spur on the teams battling in the tournament final.

It’s almost midnight in Taipan — a remote village in southwest Guizhou province — but the championship game is only just getting underway after a weekend of action.

Clanging pots and pans punctuate the hum of the crowd in the steep main stands, while millions of online viewers and social media users hold their breath as the jump ball is tossed.

This is China’s village basketball, a grassroots phenomenon that has spiraled in recent years from a humble local tradition into a viral hit and staple of Beijing’s propaganda machine.

Basketball is hugely popular in the country, but widespread corruption and recent investigations into match-fixing within the CBA, China’s top domestic league, have discouraged many fans and diverted their attention elsewhere.

Athletes in the “CunBA” — with “cun” meaning village in Chinese — are all amateurs, and the prizes are simple platters of roast meat. But it’s the pure electricity of the games that keep fans and players hooked.

“As soon as I arrived in Taipan village, the first thing I sensed was a feeling of enthusiasm and excitement,” Xia Wenxian told AFP.

Xia, 30, has come as part of a team proudly representing his home village of Gaoding, tucked away in the rugged hills of Guizhou over 100 kilometers away.

“Our CunBA has the same competitive sporting spirit as the CBA and NBA,” Xia said, as he prepared for his team’s crucial semifinal match later that evening.

Local custom gone viral

The tradition of holding annual basketball competitions goes back decades in Taipan, a village in minority-dominated Qiandongnan Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture, but only in the past few years has the concept caught on beyond the local area.

It’s an unlikely site for a national tourist attraction, but the roaring success of the CunBA on Chinese social media and glowing praise by the official press has brought throngs of visitors this summer.

In Taipan’s main thoroughfare on the afternoon before the final, locals in traditional Miao clothing lay out fruit and other items for sale as a police helicopter makes noisy circles above and eager spectators arrive from far and wide.

Organizers say the densely packed village stadium holds over 20,000 fans — more than 16 times Taipan’s population of 1,200.

China’s official news agency Xinhua said that collective online viewership of CunBA competitions has topped 100 million.

The rise of village basketball has provided a golden opportunity for businesses and politicians to capitalize on the public ardor.

A brochure handed out in Taipan by the local county’s culture and tourism bureau expounds upon the CunBA’s recent success, calling it “a window to observe Chinese-style modernization”, a slogan often employed by China’s ruling communist party.

In between the sometimes rain-soaked contests, there are impassioned musical performances featuring dancers from minority groups wearing brightly colored clothing, projecting a rosy image of ethnic harmony and respect for local customs.

Chinese state-backed media has also jumped in, with the Global Times saying the CunBA is “aimed not only at enriching the leisure activities of rural residents but also at promoting rural revitalization and the construction of a strong agricultural nation”.

During halftime at one game, fans waved dozens of huge Chinese flags while performers in costumes resembling the military uniforms worn by the People’s Liberation Army in the 1940s marched across the court.

Crimson banners adorn the village’s buildings, with one reading “rural sports, letting the light of the countryside illuminate the future”.

“CunBA, unite and work hard, advance forward bravely!” reads another.

Above the court, a sign reads: “All ethnic groups enjoy sporting events together, carrying forward Chinese spirit, gathering Chinese power.”

Booming business

As the CunBA grows in popularity, so too does its profitability.

In late July, NBA star Jimmy Butler paid a visit to Taipan village, where he was greeted by thousands of adoring fans and players with whom he dribbled and made practice shots on the court.

Butler, who earlier this year led his Miami Heat to an appearance at the NBA Finals, is an official marketing partner of leading Chinese sportswear brand Li-Ning.

One week after the NBA star left, Taipan village was still buzzing with excitement.

Li Wending, 44, brought his two sons — both huge fans of American star Stephen Curry — from neighboring Hunan to watch the final day’s play.

“The atmosphere at these village games is always amazing,” Li told AFP.

“For CBA games, we can just watch them online, but for CunBA, it’s so much better to come to the actual site and experience the excitement of the fans.”

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